Why I liked "Wolverine", but had to be careful why.
I saw The Wolverine over the weekend, and I'm gaining a greater appreciation for the sentiment some people express along these lines: "It was far better than it deserved to be", or "I'm impressed how little it sucked". Another way it's been put is how, in a season crowded with movies that have all but dripped with hype, the movies you have lesser expectations for sometimes come at you from behind and earn themselves a place in your heart.
The Wolverine, I suspected, I would end up liking by default. It derives indirectly from a storyline I've wanted to see on film for literally decades: the Claremont/Miller one-shot which more or less awakened my interest in comics back when it first appeared (and got waved under my nose by enthusiastic friends). A full review will have to wait -- and I don't want to spoil much for those who haven't seen it -- but the movie works very well indeed, and might in the long run turn out to be one of the better things Fox has been able to do with the whole franchise.
I'm always a little suspicious of my own tastes when I like something because it involves things I already have a predilection for. To wit: Japan. (Which was handled better on-screen here than in many other Western films, amazingly.) I had to be careful to not praise the movie just for offering things I know I like no matter what container they come in.
With that comes the risk of projecting insights of you own into the material that aren't supported by the material itself -- e.g., ascribing motives to characters that aren't really there, but which in your mind ought to be there because they complete the picture in a way that you like. I suspect we all do this to a high degree with things we already like; it's our way of paying our respects to the material in our hearts. The most common word for it is interpretation, which is a big part of how we continue to enjoy things after we've finished experiencing them for the first time. If we like something, we go back and read that much more into it, and maybe others see what we see too. Or not.
The biggest danger of overreaching with interpretation, I think, is when a) you're a creator and b) you bank too heavily on your audience to do that job for you as a way of finishing what you started. Then you're flirting not just with being too ambiguous for your own good, but downright lazy as well.
How number crunching -- the tool of the good -- too easily becomes the enemy of the great.
Seth Godin has got the right idea:
... the rocket scientists are busy promising Hollywood that they can run the numbers on a script and figure out how to change it to make it more likely to sell. Add a sidekick to that superhero, perhaps, or have that demon be summoned instead of whatever it is that unsummoned demons do...
This rearview window analysis is anathema to the creative breakthrough that we call art. No amount of digital focus group research could figure out that we wanted Memento or The Matrix or Amour. Worse, it's based on the flawed assumption that the past is like the future, that correlation and causation are related. By that analysis, every Supreme Court chief justice, US president and New York City police chief is going to be a man. Forever more.
Emph. mine. The whole problem with making -- as opposed to just marketing -- art of any kind on a commercial scale is that it forces you to be a groupthinker, not a maverick. You're stuck referencing only what exists, instead of dreaming of what could be, because otherwise The Numbers don't add up.
Now, people -- especially people with tons of money at risk -- have good reason to be skeptical of the idea that only a lone weirdo can save us. Sometimes those lone-weirdo moves turn out to be just that: not only unmarketable, but unwatchable and uninteresting by any measure, no matter how we run The Numbers. But without the possibility of acting as if the future doesn't have to just consist of yet more manqués of present genres, then there really is no future.
Don't take any of this as a sign that I'm all for tossing the Nate Silvers of the world out on their spreadsheets. Number-crunching deserves to be put to good use -- better use, certainly, than keeping us landlocked in Sequelistan.
Spike Lee turning to Kickstarter may be the new normal.
Before it was revealed that Spike Lee was Kickstarting his own movie project, word swirled he might have been quitting filmmaking entirely. This inspired some commentary:
I know Lee is frustrated with the state of Hollywood filmmaking these days. Every director worth a damn is. Money isn't going to the movies that need to be made, and while I love popcorn entertainment as much as anyone, that's not why I'm a movie lover. I'm a movie lover because I'm a human being, and because for a young white kid in Texas, movies were the only exposure to the larger world that I had.
The line I whip out for this situation ought to be familiar to Constant Readers by now: just because I enjoyed The Avengers doesn't mean I want every movie I see to be like that. But it's getting harder to make anything that isn't like that, because otherwise there's just no money in it -- not on a scale that allows anything like a broad audience, anyway.
As much as I enjoy the blockbusters -- and I even love some of them -- I know full well they're not the whole picture. They can't be, no more so than a skyscraper is the whole of architecture or the Dan Brown novel is the whole of literature.
Why evolutionary forces are not your company cop.
... free-market enthusiasts love to quote Joseph Schumpeter about the inevitability of “creative destruction” — but they and their audiences invariably picture themselves as being the creative destroyers, not the creatively destroyed. Well, guess what: Someone always ends up being the modern equivalent of a buggy-whip producer, and it might be you.
Once upon a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth I had an essay titled "Why Social Darwinism Is Neither" that drew the same conclusion via a different route. Those who worship power and strength inevitably cast evolution and natural forces (like, say, market forces!) as being on their side. They're never willing to entertain the possibility that one day it might be someone else's boot on their neck -- because if they did, then that would mean they weren't worthy of calling themselves the baddest mothers in the room anymore. It would also mean their definition of "fitness" -- as in survival of the most fit -- would be wrong, which is only inevitable since fitness for survivial does not always equate to brute strength.
How this summer's big-budget movie carpet-bombing has bombed bigtime.
Studios have also tried to sell most of these as “original,” which in Hollywood-speak means not a sequel or a remake. In reality, movie companies have largely just reassembled familiar parts. “Pacific Rim,” which featured giant robots, seemed to share DNA with “Transformers.” “The Lone Ranger” was “Pirates of the Caribbean” in Old West drag. “R.I.P.D.” was “Men in Black” lite.
And Turbo was Yet Another Dreamworks Animated Film, one with a $140 million or so pricetag. You know something's wrong when a studio that does conventional hand-drawn animation can crank something out at a tenth of that price and create something an order of magnitude more interesting. There is no American Studio Ghibli, not in the sense of there being an animation house that is informed by the sensibilities and tastes of its creators rather than the perceived demands of the market.
More on why art doesn't sit on the rungs of a ladder.
... the danger for many of us is that love of popular art is so easy, so comfortable, so insisted on by our commercialized environment that the less accessible world of high art is ignored. To some extent, as Ross points out, this is the fault of the way high art currently presents itself (a topic I hope to take up later). But it is also due to the blindness of the lover to any merits the beloved lacks. My argument has tried to show lovers of popular art how much more there is to love.
Not long ago I got back into reading a lot of the classics I'd either missed or glossed over while I was in college. Two things spurred this on. One was the presence of excellent new translations of a lot of this material (e.g., the Pevear / Volokhonsky translations of the Russian classics, which are not always to my taste but more often right than wrong). It was nice to finally read these things and not feel like I was reading them through the gauze of a previous age's genteel notions. The other was a growing sense that so little of what was going on around me, culturally, seemed worth the effort, so why not look back and see what I'd missed?
It took some time to make sense of, or make peace with, the impulses that had driven Thing #2.¹ No cultural period is without its discontents, and I can't argue with a straight face that things were better back when, because a good deal of the time they just plain weren't. I'm not sure I'd want to live in an era that had neither Coltrane nor Rurouni Kenshin, because I get something from each of those that I don't get from the other -- and, more importantly, I get something from both of them that I don't get from anywhere else.
How "story beats" have killed storytelling, especially in Hollywood.
What killed Hollywood? Recipe-based screenwriting, as codified in guidelines that were sold not only to screenwriters but to producers and financiers:
In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting. Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.
The reason these type-by-numbers templates are hard to dismiss outright is not just because they work -- if by "work" you mean they provide a formulaic way to create popular entertainment which sells. It's that there is more than a little truth to the idea that a story has to follow a pattern of some kind.
It's not that stories don't need structure; the fact they have structure is what allows us to call them stories. It's that people too often confuse the mere presence of a structure, or the presence of elements that comprise the structure, with elements worth talking about in the first place. But when your job is to get people to part with their $12 and sit in the theater for two hours, the mere semblance of a deep story can often do the job even when the whole thing evaporates from mind barely before you're back to your car.
Why del Toro's Cthuluzillavengelion project didn't quite break wide.
My colleague Bonnie Walling, on the problem of Geek Film Vs. Geeky Film - Muse Hack:
... a geek movie is, let’s face it, a niche product, just like any other movie made with a very specific audience in mind – African-Americans, the LBGT community, etc. Some niche products do cross over and find a mainstream audience – Tyler Perry’s Madea films, for example – but those tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.
No prizes for guessing what touched off the whole discussion: the relative underperformance of Pacific Rim, which was beaten out by the likes of Grown Ups 2. I'd been saying myself for some time that Rim would be a disappointment at the box office and relatively anonymous to mainstream audiences. (The folks I saw it with enjoyed it, but for a theater on opening weekend it was mightly sparsely attended.)
The rise (we hope) of the non-fiction drama.
... media fragmentation has made studios more wary of jumping into purely fictional drama, because they can no longer rely on best-selling novels, original stage shows, or the even the reputation of master filmmakers to supply a mass audience. “It’s quite possible that we’re in a golden age for this type of film, and we’re just not aware of it yet,” said Robert Birchard, editor of the American Film Institute catalog of feature films.
"This type of film" being the non-fiction drama, a la the upcoming Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass, of United 93; starring Tom Hanks). It would be nice if indeed this type of film does turn out to be a good source for modest hit-making beyond the usual awards ceremony chatter.
What constitutes an adult audience in this day and age?
The other week during a discussion of Pacific Rim (which I had not yet seen at the time), I said "I suspect that there's a core issue of dissonance when you try to make a movie for what you think are forty-year-old 12-year-olds."
I wasn't speaking about that film specifically, but rather about the whole phenomenon of trying to appeal to people who do not consider themselves children, but also don't seem to be appealed to by the same things we used to aim at adults. What we now call an "adult audience" has mutated drastically. The people who sell this stuff (as opposed to the people who actually make it) have a different idea of what the adult audience is than the consumers themselves do.
Maybe we've grown weary of manufactured excitement, emphasis on that first word: manufactured.
There are too many movies, and not enough differentiation between them; everything ends up blending into one generic action movie with lots of explosions, dramatic music, and uplifting finales that may or may not have been earned by everything that came before. It’s not simply that we, as an audience, have grown weary of all of the manufactured “excitement.”
Here's a theory: maybe it is that simple. Maybe we have grown weary of manufactured excitement, emphasis on that first word: manufactured. And maybe the problem is that we've introjected this manufacturing process and confused it with real creativity.
If we don't know what's possible creatively, we might never try to look beyond what we have.
Pauk Krugman's The Great Unraveling had some interesting notes in it about why, for so long, English food had such a bad reputation:
The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste -- but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal [because industrial food production was so poor], he didn't demand one. And because consumers didn't demand good food, they didn't get it. Even then there were surely some people who would have liked better, just not enough to provide a critical mass.
And then things changed .... Enough people knew what good food tasted like that stores and restaurants began providing it -- and that allowed even more people to acquire civilized taste buds.
The same could be said about our attitudes vis-a-vis our entertainments and our culture. We don't know that things can be better, so we don't demand that they be better except in the most jejune or trivial ways. The end result is a pipeline that actually thinks a remake of 21 Jump Street is a pretty good idea.
I don't mean to sound like I'm denigrating people who genuinely enjoy such things. It's more the mindset of the creators who think such things are good ideas that I deplore. They impoverish audiences with such decisions, but most crucially, they impoverish themselves by shutting themselves away from opportunities to create something genuinely new and different.
Everything is in and nothing is out. Right?
Bumped into a quote from William Graham Sumner that seemed to add perspective to many of the issues I've been covering lately:
Fashion is by no means trivial. It is the form of the dominance of the group over the individual, and it is quite often as harmful as beneficial. There is no arguing with fashion. [...] The authority of fashion is imperative as to everything which it touches. The sanctions are ridicule and powerlessness. The dissenter hurts himself ....
We don't tend to think about things being "out of fashion" -- or, more problematically, "nonconformist" -- in a destructive way anymore. That's in big part because we have the unexamined assumption that everything is in and nothing is out -- that if something's not part of the picture anymore, it's because there must be a perfectly good reason for it.
Why WordPress and I can't get along.
Last year, when I began a complete redesign of this site, I also contemplated a change of publishing platforms -- switching everything from Movable Type, which I've been using since about the mid-2000s to WordPress, the blogging platform that by the makers' own admission powers at least a quarter of the entire web.
I know some other folks who had made that exact switch -- Tim Hall (a/k/a Kalyr) had done it, and he seemed to have garnered good results from it. So I gave it a go. The end result was such a lamentable mess that I went right back to Movable Type and haven't budged since.
My failure to connect with "Game of Thrones."
I need to get something off my chest: I don't like Game of Thrones. Not as a book series, not as a TV series, not as a fandom.
The hard part is explaining why.
Attributing it all to prejudice, or bad taste, is easy. It's not that I walked into the first book of the series (this was about four years ago) muttering under my breath, "All right, George, do your worst." I didn't want to hate the book. But by the end of the first volume I was so turned off, so thoroughly rubbed the wrong way by the material and Martin's treatment of it that I not only could not make myself read the rest of it but actively distrusted my own opinion about it.
Be your own dang "focus group".
One of the big differences between The Movies Then and The Movies Now is the major difference in the constitution of the people running the studios. People like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer may not have had the best tastes or the best personalities, but they had the instincts of showmen despite also being businessmen. They had a gut feeling about what worked and what didn't, and I suspect deep down inside they, too, were fans-of-a-sort.
Now cut to today, and the studios are all run by businessmen with the instincts of accountants, not showmen. By and large they don't watch movies, and they almost never watch them in theaters -- which means it becomes much easier for them to greenlight things which simply don't work for an audience. Or which, when they do work, work only because they exploit the most fleeting and ephemeral aspects of what an audience gets out of a film.
I hate using a term like out of touch to describe such behavior, but it fits here: they're decoupled from the end product they actually make. Imagine the CEO of a car company never getting behind the wheel of one of his cars -- and not on a test track, either, but out on the road where everyone else drives.
On the video game of the TV series of the movie inspired by the book.
I think there’s so much good television that it’s hard to get people to go to theaters without making it some kind of event. I think studios are working backwards since they lost their DVD sales, they are working backwards from “How do we get a theme park and a ride and a this and a that…” So if you’re not making Harry Potter or you’re not making something that you can synergize and advertise across all of these huge platforms… It’s easier for me to get 150 million dollars to make a movie if I’ve got giant robots in it than it is to make a 40 million dollar drama. I mean that’s the wasteland.
I wonder if some of the same madness is starting to infect publishing, albeit in a different way. YA fiction and paranormal romances are still white-hot, the former in particular because of the ways they can be turned into other things as per the above. The latter, less so, but if they actually make and release a Fifty Shades of Grey film then I anticipate pulling a Werner Herzog with my shoe on this issue.
What's happening might best be explained by reframing an old Hollywood joke:
Q: What is a book?
A: It is one of several elements that combine to form a major promotional effort.
Expect dummies and that's what you'll get -- but I sense there's more on that score.
Steven Brust took a slap at the idea that people are automatically stupid. I agree with him: if you assume people are dummies, then you'll get dummies. If you assume your audience is up to the task, that's the audience you'll get.
But his examples don't really seem to support his case. Is the best example of a TV show "aimed at smart people" that he could come up with The West Wing? Is the Grateful Dead really a shining example of "music that engaged the brain"? I know he was ranting, but ...
Maybe the problem is that we have opposing ideas about what constitutes entertainment for intelligent people, or why such people seek it out in the first place, and because I see that stuff -- what we do with the thing after we get our hands on it -- as being at least as important.
What happens to the movies after they all become tentpoles.
The big news about the movies right now is how the average tentpole Hollywood production makes at least as much money abroad as it does at home. Possibly more. Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness are case studies in this problem: the former was filmed with Chinese money and so featured some inserts shot specifically for the Mainland (from all I heard, you didn't miss anything by not seeing them); the latter was retooled that much more into an action feature at the insistence of Paramount.
It's this retooling of everything into an action vehicle that bothers me. I've said before that I don't mind seeing movies like The Avengers; I just don't want every movie of significance to end up like that. But this retooling goes even further into darkness, pun intended: it means relying that much more on action and that much less on character, dialogue, plotting ... in other words, all the things that make a movie more than just a mural of noise and motion.
Why things are popular may be more about dumb luck than anything else. But don't despair too much.
You know the old saw about how people allegedly don't read anymore?¹ I've long believed it's horse puckey -- people do read, and quite voraciously. What I'm coming to doubt is that there was ever a time when the Average Dude read more deeply than they do today. It's a sop to the idea of a golden age, another version of the social myth that we did things better once upon a time, and all we have to do is go back to doing that and all will be well.
And a big part of why it's a myth is because of why books find an audience in the first place. Hint: it's not because most of them are any good.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Uncategorized / General for the month of July 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind